At Mass Ave Diner, Meals With Community and a Waffle Lot of Love

mass ave dinerPhoto by Jess Benjamin

Walk from Central toward Harvard Square and you’ll pass Mass Ave Diner, an unassuming, bare bones hole in the wall. Inside, the chairs sparkle with squishy red seats and a chalkboard promotes new beers and daily specials. Two tall windows let customers eat with the perfect street-watching view. But most importantly, a slew of people are perched at the bar, conversing with cooks and laughing with owners Karolina Zeledon, 27, and David Barlam, 31.

Since 2010, the pair have run their restaurant with two things in mind—preserving the community and providing affordable, fresh meals—things that feel increasingly hard to find in a city that’s reshaping itself into a trendy tech and student haven.

“Cambridge is a city of ‘foodies,’” Barlam says. “I feel we strike the balance between the high expectations people in the city have for their restaurants—cool vibe, fresh veggies and fruit, scratch cooking, catering to vegans, gluten allergies—while being affordable enough you can come eat a few times a week and not break the bank.”

But had you asked Zeledon and Barlam back then if they thought they would open a business together, they would have laughed. Even if you ask them now, they giggle nervously. And who can blame them? The fact that they successfully rescued the restaurant at 18 and 21 years old, respectively, is hard to believe.

Mass Ave Diner has been around for nearly 20 years, near the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Hancock Street. Back then, it was a different restaurant entirely. The walls were a bright green. The metal chairs had dolphin cutouts on their backs. The chefs hastily prepared the food. When Zeledon joined the staff as a hostess in 2009, she couldn’t believe it was still operating.

“I thought it would be fine dining, so I came dressed up all nice,” she says, laughing. “The owner then was a character. He was older—in his fifties—the old cook that took it over from the original Greek owners. He bought it, sure, but it was going to shit.”

Two months after she joined the staff, her prediction came true when he announced he was going to sell the restaurant. Though young, she knew it was her time to step up. Barlam saw her furiously sketching plans into a notebook one day and asked what was going on. She told him she was overworked, couldn’t put her ideas into the future she wanted, and wanted to open a restaurant. She was designing a plan to redesign it under her own ownership. Barlam was wrapping up business school, and he knew it was important to join her, but the duo was up against one tricky fact: their age.

Mass Ave Diner

Mass Ave Diner co-owners Karolina Zeledon and David Barlam

“The locals? They were tough on us at first,” Zeledon remembers. “They didn’t accept us because we weren’t from that neighborhood, and we were so young. We had to make sure to make it look better and cooler—without losing the people that made us love it to begin with.”

Zeledon has a long history of proving herself to naysayers. She moved to Boston from Costa Rica in 2005, when she was just 15 years old. “I didn’t want a quiñceanera or anything,” she says. “I just wanted to go somewhere, and my mom suggested Boston because she knew people there.” She got a job as a hostess at the high-end steakhouse Smith and Wollensky’s right off the bat, despite never having worked a restaurant job. Her father worked as an artist and her mother as a hairdresser, both leading a bohemian lifestyle where rules were rarely enforced, which she accredits to building her confidence at a young age.

She met Barlam at Smith and Wollensky’s, where he was a food runner. At first, she hated him because he made fun of her accent, but his teasing eventually led to a date at the bowling alley and, now, a relationship that’s nearing 10 years. “It was an intense environment, and Karolina trained me initially, so I was already comfortable having her as my boss,” he says. “It actually only helps our business from the perspective that the ultimate trust we have in each other allows us to be in multiple places at once while ensuring the business is running as it should.”

After successfully buying the diner from the previous owner and getting licenses sorted, Zeledon and Barlam got to work. In less than a year, they renovated anything they could. They painted the walls red. They redid the flooring. They spruced up the kitchen equipment. They bought new chairs. “It’s an entirely new restaurant in almost every way from when we bought it in 2010,” says Barlam. It took time to gather the money, but they had the patience to pool it together and make adjustments as it came in, and the modifications happened subtly over time. “We didn’t want to lose that community. We loved them. The changes we made were to spruce things up and make it inviting, not to change what they loved,” explains Zeledon. “It’s just under new management… but better!”

The biggest change in ownership was the food. The Mass Ave Diner of old offered the usual plates—short stack of pancakes, egg sandwiches, cozy lunch items—but lacked spirit. Ever since the duo took over, there’s been a noticeable prioritization of freshness and authenticity. Each dish feels like it’s home-cooked and filled with love. The way Zeledon and Barlam see it, buying fresh ingredients may be expensive, but by spending a little more, the food tastes significantly better and draws customers back in the long run. It’s what makes staples like chocolate chip cranberry pancakes or chilaquiles taste so fresh.

“Back home, I remember breakfast as all this good fruit, rice and beans, and healthy food that isn’t expensive,” Zeledon says. “Here, you have to spend $40 to get a decent breakfast. We wanted to make meals that are cheap but still taste good. It shouldn’t be complicated, especially breakfast.”

“I remember deciding to make grapefruit juice ourselves,” she adds. “It took a while to figure out how to make it. We bought a machine, and I broke it all the time. It was difficult, but that was important to us.”

mass ave diner

Photo by Jess Benjamin

As the years passed, the duo needed to find a new way to bring people in. The answer revealed itself with ease: alcohol. Because Mass Ave Diner stays open until 10 most nights, it’s a no-brainer in terms of getting customers to stay longer and brightening the atmosphere all at once. Technically, customers can drink at whatever hour they want as long as they order something to eat, and it doesn’t get wild because they’re bookended by a liquor store and a bar. Though they got their liquor license in 2014, it was both a struggle to get and a struggle to advertise. “People don’t tell you how hard it is to keep a business going,” says Zeledon. “You have to know people in the city. You have to have relationships with everybody. We’ve had to put up a bit of a fight to prove ourselves because we’re young and outsiders.”

The more you look around, the more Mass Ave Diner seems like a gem among Cambridge establishments. Art by local artists hangs on the walls: tiny clay earrings shaped like bacon and eggs, paintings of a skater standing in front of The Middle East, a pop culture homage that depicts Eeyore with a can of Narragansett in hand. Zeledon goes to art shows and asks artists if they want to hang their work there, and the works rotate out every three months of so. Everything is under $200; the diner never charges a commission. The way they see it, their business is about and for the neighborhood. Charging artists money doesn’t make sense.

From its inception to new ownership to where it stands today, that community has been what sets Mass Ave Diner apart. The restaurant has never had more than 10 people on its staff at the same time. The customers that filter through are quintessentially Cambridge—a combination of scholars, musicians and tech start-up geeks—but the place buzzes with a sense of unity, like everyone can be themselves, no matter how groggy or drained they feel. “It’s people who’ve been living there for 20 years who’ve seen the neighborhood change: students from Harvard, politicians, [author] Junot Díaz, the owner of the Celtics,” Zeledon says. “We don’t know their names, but we know people by their orders.”

Perhaps Mass Ave Diner’s most appealing trait is that everyone talks there, even those eating alone at the counter. They aren’t on their phones (though some read the paper). They chat with the cooks. They strike up conversations with their neighbors. Ask any customer, and it’s clear: by reshaping the diner, Zeledon and Barlam are rescuing the communicative culture of Cambridge from the grasp of gentrification, one fried egg at a time.

This story originally appeared in the May/June issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 250 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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